Fundamental Attribution Error

The American Psychological Association defines fundamental attribution error (FAE) as the tendency to overestimate the relationship between people’s behavior and their character and underestimate the relationship between their behavior and their circumstances. It also suggests that when we judge ourselves we tend to do the opposite: we underestimate the role that character plays and overestimate the influence of circumstances. 

When someone else messes up we are quick to judge him and attribute his problem to something wrong with his character; we tend to think that people do bad things because they are bad people. But when we look at ourselves in the same situation, rather than blame our character, we consider our circumstances.  

For instance, imagine you’re driving down the road when a reckless driver cuts you off and speeds forward, barely missing several other cars. You immediately think he’s a jerk, has anger problems, or may be inebriated; you assume his bad behavior is due to poor character. But if you knew that the driver has an injured person in the backseat and is rushing to the hospital, your judgment is informed by his circumstances, and you judge him differently.

When a colleague is late to a meeting we tend to label it as a character flaw (he’s inconsiderate, disorganized, self-absorbed); but when we’re late to a meeting, we justify it based on circumstances (our previous meeting ran late, traffic is bad, we had to finish a conversation with a customer). We tend to cut ourselves slack while holding others 100% accountable for their actions.

Sometimes behavior is linked to character and sometimes behavior is linked to circumstances. FAE simply suggests that when judging other people, we have a cognitive bias—we default to the behavior/character link and when we judge ourselves we favor the behavior/circumstances link. 

To correct for this error it’s helpful to invent a story that creates a positive explanation for people’s behavior. For instance, the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, think: “I hope he makes it to the hospital in time.” When someone doesn’t return your call, instead of thinking “He’s an inconsiderate jerk” think of some good reasons why he hasn’t called you back: perhaps he’s struggling with a major life-issue, or traveling for work, or he honestly just forgot to return your call.

We should presume benevolence toward others; we should choose to imagine a noble intent. 

We need to give each other a break.

Here’s a short video on the subject created by the UT Austin McCombs School of Business. 

14 Replies to “Fundamental Attribution Error”

  1. OK Don, you’ve quit preaching and started meddling. My toe is hurting.
    But thanks for the wake up. I’m seriously going to try your suggestion…probably won’t have an occasion for another hour or so. :-).

  2. Don: I can tell you that after teaching this concept for about 20 years, the individual stuck in the mode, generally does not see it nor acknowledge the truth for in their context (the sum of their life experiences) they are right. FAE is noted in many cultures – in our Native American culture, it is expressed, Don’t jump to conclusions on another until you walk in their shoes. (paraphrased a little) Dr. B.

    1. Thanks, Arlen. It doesn’t surprise me that FAE is universal; it’s just what we humans default to. Thanks for responding.

  3. The Question is: Who is responsible?, or who can we blame, or find fault?

    The answer is, in my opinion, Don is WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE
    to exist in God’s covenant as a law of life.

    As Pastor Swindoll stated last Sunday, (& I paraphrase)

    We live in a Post-Christian World for which we should have 2 Reactions:

    Reaction A) We Cry as our Culture is facing the Challenge of Potential
    Reaction B) WE Be Aware of circumstance & events that we should make
    our leaders aware in their civic administration.

    The bottom line, We Are ALL Responsible for our actions in respectful exercise of Good standards of living … in a Post- Christian World.

    Don, thank you for your continued information of Awareness

    1. Hi Doug. Sure, please do share the post with others. If they want to sign up to receive my weekly posts just send them to my website

  4. Don,

    I can’t agree more, as this is a philosophy I’ve had for many years….”know the facts before judging”, so thank you for reminding each of us.

    No one knows this better than I, with the emotional pain I’ve had in my life. It’s been so easy for others to look at my ex husband and say “no way could he do that for he is the VP of a large company”….I’ve had fellow Christians tell me this. “Oh but”….they have totally negated the “humanness” of even the most powerful of executives.

    Thank you again,
    Jane Woods

    1. Thanks, Jane, for taking the time to respond. I’m sorry that you have been misunderstood. God will heal. Don

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